Unravelling the National Grid: Anne Kennedy

Unravelling the National Grid: Anne Kennedy, chaired by Michael Moynahan
1.45am, 10 March, Embassy Theatre

An excited crowd filled the Embassy TheatreAnne Kennedy 2012 to see writer Anne Kennedy (right) in discussion with Michael Moynahan. Let’s get right down to it: as a poet, novelist, and script writer, Kennedy is one of New Zealand’s most versatile and innovative writers. Her first book of poetry, Sing-Song, was named Poetry Book of the Year at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and her latest, The Darling North, won the Poetry section of the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

While Kennedy is best known for her poetry, the session focused on her most recent novel, The Last Days of the National Costume, which is set during the 1998 power blackout in Auckland. The “charming and heartwarming novel about illicit love, sewing, blackouts and Belfast” centres on the seamstress GoGo, moving from her interior world to a broader picture of economic decline. Kennedy stated that she wanted the novel to explore the “westward slope of their middle-class status,” her main theme being the “agony of plenty” or a middle-class malaise that has set into GoGo’s life.

cv_the_last_days_of_the_national_CostumeWhile the subject matter sounds serious, Moynahan called the novel playful and funny, and Kennedy cited writers such as Peter Carey and Janet Frame as also using humour to write about painful themes. “Humour makes the reader let their guard down, and then they’re open to what’s coming,” she said, stating that the 90s were a more innocent time before events such as 9/11. One of Kennedy’s goals with The Last Days of the National Costume was also to tell the story of Irish New Zealanders; Kennedy herself grew up in an Irish New Zealand family: “The story of the Irish in New Zealand hasn’t been told enough in fiction,” she asserted. And why Auckland? “I love place in literature,” she said, going on to say that Auckland is not featured often enough in fiction.

While Moynahan focused on Kennedy’s fiction, he did ask how, when a new idea arises, Kennedy decides whether to write a poem or a novel. To answer, Kennedy stated that her first collection of poetry was meant to be non-fiction, and her second collection, The Time of the Giants, a novella. This lead Kennedy to discuss her beliefs about creativity, asserting that “everyone is born artistic.” For Kennedy, creativity requires “a departure from the known,” and every project is a way to test her creative boundaries. In saying that, she also revealed that her experience in the film industry means the commonly used “three act structure” can be found in many of her books. For her own students (Kennedy teaches at Manukau Institute of Technology and has previously taught fiction and screenwriting at the University of Hawai`i) Kennedy wants to make sure they are able to explore their own creativity while understanding that practice is important. “Most writers learn if you keep going you’ll get there,” she said.

The highlight of the session was Kennedy’s wonderful reading of a section from The Last Days of the National Costume; when she stopped the disappointment was almost audible. The audience would have happily let one of New Zealand’s most genuine, poised, and knowledgeable writers read well into the next session.

by Sarah Jane Barnett on behalf of Booksellers NZ